Monday, February 22, 2010

Analysis of a (Real) Spy Movie

Let me preface this analysis with two preliminary points.

First, anybody who knows me knows that I read lots and lots of espionage novels (and even some intelligence and espionage-related non-fiction). Just take a look at my LibraryThing catalog and you’ll see that a large proportion of my reading is in the area of espionage fiction (and a favorite series by Daniel Silva involves Israeli assassin Gabriel Allon). And that’s been the case since my early teens. Thus, I think that it’s fair to say that I’ve read a lot of espionage novels (not to mention seen quite a few movies, too) and have, over the years, built up a casual knowledgebase (though no actual experience). For that matter, I’ve also tried my hand at writing espionage fiction (though with the exception of a short story written in college, most of my efforts have bogged down, much to my own disappointment).

Second, I’m a student of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In college, I studied extensively in the area (including writing my senior thesis on “Use of Israel as a Policy Surrogate for US Actions”; I got a very good grade from a very pro-Palestinian professor). In addition to the espionage books that I read, I also read a fair number of history or political science books on Israel and the conflict, and a far, far larger set of scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) articles on the subject. I’ve also used this blog to write quite a bit about Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. So, here too, I think that I can legitimately claim to have at least a decent working understanding of the issues, the players, and the objectives.

Anyway, by now you’ve probably seen (or at least heard about) the video posted by police authorities in Dubai that claims to show an 11-member assassination squad stalking and eventually killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a high-ranking member of Hamas, who had traveled to Dubai (on a false passport) allegedly to purchase arms from Iran. As I watched the video I thought back to my understanding of how operations like this are or should probably be carried out. I also thought about what the respective players had to gain from this particular assassination carried out in this particular way.

So get yourself some popcorn and watch the video (be aware that the video is 27 minutes; that’s why I suggested the popcorn). If nothing else, it is entertaining. As you watch, see if anything strikes you as odd or if there are any issues that you think are left curiously unresolved. Come back when you’re done and I’ll walk through an analysis of some of the more interesting parts of the video. [Update 2/24/2010: The video link from Gulf News TV that was embedded below and all across the web has, without apparent explanation, been shortened from 27 minutes to 1:46; it now consists just of a few “highlights”. I’m trying to find a new link to the full video. In the meantime, it may be worth asking why the full video has disappeared, especially given the attention that the original video and the assassination have garnered.]

Are you back? Good. Did you “enjoy” the video? Any quick thoughts on whether you agree with the analysis of Dubai’s police authorities? Any problems jump out at you?

One more thing before I jump into the analysis itself. Do I feel bad for al-Mabhouh? Nope. He was a known and wanted terrorist. If you play in that particular sand box, you should pretty much know that those whose wives and kids you try to kill probably don’t think real highly of you and might kick a little sand your way. Do I think that this kind of assassination is wrong? Again, nope. A clinical and clean operation like this is much better than dropping a bomb on al-Mabhouh’s house and risking harm to innocent civilians. Targeted assassinations have their place.

With that all having been said, let’s look at the video:

0:10: It is worth noting right away that the video uses the word “murder” throughout. Later in the video, we are told that there is “proof” that al-Mabhouh was murdered and did not die naturally (as was initially reported). However, that proof is not clearly identified (at least not in the video; other sources have since had more to say). Moreover, to the extent that al-Mabhouh was, in fact, a terrorist (or member of a terrorist organization), then might it not be more accurate to describe his death as a “killing” (in the military sense of the word) rather than ”murder”? If a solider shoots at another soldier and kills him, is that a murder? So if an intelligence organization (and we’ll presume for the moment that the “killers” are from an intelligence organization) kills a terrorist who is trying to buy arms to kill civilians, then why should that death be “worse” than the soldier killed in combat?

0:28: At least the Dubai police acknowledge that al-Mabhouh was a “senior Hamas military commander” and a founder of the al-Qassam Brigades (the charming chaps who launch rockets from Gaza into southern Israel). The claim is also made that there were failed attempts to assassinate al-Mabhouh in the past and the clear inference, without it being said outright, is that Israel was responsible for these failed attempts. Apparently, this information comes from al-Mabhouh himself in an interview with al-Jazeera (and if a terrorist said it, then it must be true, right…), though one wonders how exactly al-Mabhouh knew that it was Israel that had tried to kill him.

0:42: While the film does show quite a few interesting things, it is permeated with conjecture. For example, we are told that the “murder was carried out by a professional team that is highly skilled in these kinds of operations”. The basis for this allegation is the “fact” that “there were no traces left behind that could help uncover their identities”. Um, really? First, didn’t we just watch 27 minutes of video where we can see the faces of the members of this “highly skilled” team? And didn’t the Dubai authorities manage to track down their respective passports quite quickly? You’d think (and I’ll come back to this theme regularly) that if these assassins were so good at their job, that the Dubai police would never have been able to pick them out from the crowd in the first place. Plus, it is worth noting that just because a group is able to successfully accomplish a complicated plan, doesn’t necessarily mean that the group is either professional or highly skilled. All it means is that the plan worked.

0:50: We’re told the team used “special communications devices”. Like, what? Cellphones? Walkie talkies? How do the Dubai police know that the “devices” were in any way special and not just toys from Radio Shack? The fact that this claim is made repeatedly seems designed to lend credence to the “highly skilled” and “professional” allegation at the heart of the analysis of the Dubai police.

1:06: Remember about 20 seconds ago when we were told that the “professional team” that was “highly skilled” left no traces? Then how is it that Dubai’s police were able to “track the killers and identify them within 24 hours” (emphasis added)? That seems to call into question that whole “professional” and “highly skilled” allegation, not to mention the claim that no traces were left. Note too that this is being referred to as a “crime”.

2:00: Have you ever read any kind of espionage novel written in the last 10 years or so? One thing that you will almost always read about is the efforts that the protagonists (or antagonists, as the case may be) go through not to have their faces visible on cameras. They will wear a hat, or turn their head slightly, or raise a hand to cover a “cough” or raise a newspaper in front of their face; anything to avoid having their face clearly seen on camera (but while still managing to look natural). Watch Michael (or is it James?) right at the 2:00 mark. He almost looks right at the camera; he certainly does nothing to avoid the camera. Ah, but maybe he didn’t know the camera was there, you say. Well, if this team was as “professional” and “highly skilled” as Dubai wants us to think they were, then shouldn’t they have known where the cameras were? If they were so professional “in these kinds of operations” don’t you suppose that they would have done a “dry run” to try to learn about the type of security (including cameras) that would need to be avoided? It seems to me that one of the distinctions between highly skilled and … um … amateurish? … is the advanced knowledge and planning put into the operation to be sure that simple mistakes like being seen by a camera are minimized.

2:03: Gail allows her face to be clearly seen by the video camera at the airport not once but twice.

2:12: Michael and James again allow their faces to be seen by the video camera. They make small efforts not to look right at the camera, but it would have been easy for them to simply turn their backs to the camera so as not to be so easily seen. I don’t suppose that some of the members of this team actually want to be identified, do they?

2:33: It would have been hard for Gail to do a better job of looking at the camera without being obvious about it. So, at 2:38, she does it again, just in case.

3:01: What made the phone calls “suspicious”? The mere fact that they went to Austria? Note that Dubai’s police only speculate as to what those numbers were. Given the other detail presented, it seems somewhat strange that no more information about those telephone numbers was readily available. In addition, if the team were so “professional” and “highly skilled” why would they make numerous calls to different numbers in the same country? If it was to some kind of command center, couldn’t the destination of those calls be traced? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the calls to have been placed to vastly different destinations from which they were routed to their actual destinations? Dubai’s police also tell us that it is “probable that highly encrypted systems were used to communicate” but no explanation regarding this statement of probability is provided. I wonder if this statement was designed simply to make us wonder about the ability of Dubai’s police to monitory regular communications in the emirate.

3:19: This is the first time that we’re shown Gail’s passport photo. Does that look like Gail to you?

3:55: When Peter arrives, we’re told he is carrying a “suspicious bag”. What about the bag was suspicious?

4:33: We’re shown Peter returning to the airport and we’re told that he “meets with a team member”. Look closely at what you see on the video. Peter indeed returns to the airport (though it is impossible to read the time stamp to know for sure that this clip of Peter in the airport indeed follows the previous clip). But note that at 4:41 (when we first see Peter again) he appears to be reading a piece of paper in his hand and the other man (identified simply as a “team member”) seems to stop and point at the paper. I suppose that one interpretation of this could be that Peter met with a team member; then again, it is just as likely that Peter was looking at the paper for information about, say maybe, the name of his hotel, and a helpful passerby stopped to aid Peter. Who knows? But it is important not to read operational activities into every single movement of every single person, especially as that can lead to snaring people who may not even be related to the operation. Does is seem likely that two operatives would meet in plain view of a camera, especially a rotating camera that would have missed their meeting had they waited just a few seconds more (unless that is they wanted to be seen together)? It is also worth noting that we’re next told that the suspects left in different directions; wouldn’t that also be consistent with unrelated people leaving the airport?

5:11: Here we see a photo of Peter entering a hotel. One thing jumped out at me in this photo. Notice that sweater tied around his shoulders? I went back and looked at the video of Peter in the airport where he is also wearing the sweater. If an agent was trying to look inconspicuous, would tying a brown sweater around a white shirt in a desert country accomplish that goal? In fact, Peter’s outfit makes it quite easy to spot him. I wonder why? At least he appears to look a little bit away from the camera as he enters the hotel (and at 5:24 he does a good job of looking down as the camera takes his picture).

5:28: Next we see Peter  leaving the hotel and going shopping. Boy that striped shirt is inconspicuous, too. I will say that Peter does a pretty good job of keeping his face away from the cameras.

5:48: “Three suspects” arrive at the shopping center. I do find it interesting that some of the subjects are named (and later 11 passport photos are shown) but several times we’re simply referred to subjects. How do they link these random people to the 11 passports? And note that none of the 3 seems to do anything to avoid the camera, especially the “suspect” on the right in the blue shirt who almost looks right at the camera.

5:53: Next Kevin and Gail arrive at the shopping center. This seems like a good place for another quick aside: Would you have been able to identify that woman as Gail if you hadn’t been told it was her? She seems to be wearing a scarf (as Gail was when she checked into the hotel) but her pants are now white, her hair is now loose, and it appears lighter (maybe). The real issue to take note of is the quality (or lack thereof) of the facial recognition software being used by the Dubai police. Clearly the police could not (certainly not in 24 hours, and probably not even in a month) have looked at every second of every piece of CCTV (closed circuit TV) footage from throughout Dubai. So either the police had information of which camera feeds to look at or relied upon facial recognition software to help identify suspects on different video feeds. Of course the question then becomes how good that software is and how many false positives (or negatives) are generated? Is that really Gail? Who knows?

6:01: Gail leaves the shopping center. Again, is that Gail? How do we know? We don’t see her face. And to me it looks like her hair is slightly different again and the color of her top seems to have shifted slightly (though her purse looks like it might be the same). Maybe it’s just the light; maybe that isn’t Gail at all.

6:10: Kevin leaves with a suspect. But all we really see is two men leaving the shopping center at the same time. Are they together? And is the fact that the guy in the blue shirt leaves at the same time as Kevin the reason he was targeted as a suspect in the first place? If so, doesn’t that call into question whether the two men he walked in with are actually suspects themselves? Note that the video clip stops before we see where Kevin and the other man go. Do they both get in that cab? Do they walk different directions? We’re not shown that piece of information.

6:15: Two suspects leave. I note that when these two leave, we do see their faces, but we didn’t see the faces of Gail, Kevin, or Mr. Blue Shirt. Whys is that? One more question: Why did five alleged suspects go to the mall? Remember, they supposedly have “special communications devices” that are probably “highly encrypted”; so why would they need to meet up in the first place? Unless, of course, the goal was to be seen together.

6:23: When Kevin checks out of the hotel, note the inconspicuous shopping bag that he carries. Yep, if I’m off to do dirty spy stuff, I’d carry around a big white shopping bag with a bright stripe on the side. One other thing to take note of and this is a pretty good time to do so. We see quite a lot of interaction between the “suspects” and hotel staff members. What language did the suspects speak? Did they have accents? Those seem like pretty important bits of information and nothing is said about any of that. Hmm.

6:52: We’re shown “before and after” photos of Kevin. Is the dark-haired man actually Kevin? It’s hard to tell. I mean a light blue shirt and blue blazer are pretty unusual clothing choices, right? How many of you reading this have a blue shirt and a blue blazer? If Kevin really wanted to change his appearance, don’t you think it likely that he’d change shirts? Or lose the jacket (or even have a reversible jacket)? Is this “disguise” really the best these “highly skilled” “professionals” can do?

6:58: At least these guys manage to avoid looking right at the camera.

7:15: “Two of the suspects” … again with the unnamed suspects whose faces we can’t see. But hey, they did walk into a hotel that Kevin walked into, right? I mean, that is suspicious…

7:18: This is one of those little jumps in logic that we’re expected to simply accept: “A suspect from the surveillance team [how do they know he’s a suspect or part of the surveillance team] arrives at another location [um, isn’t this the same guy that just walked into the hotel that Kevin walked into? same blue hat…] anticipating the arrival of the victim [note: not terrorist, but “victim”], as he was known to frequent this hotel [how and why was he known to frequent this hotel; for that matter, why was Dubai allowing a known terrorist to “frequent” anywhere in Dubai?]. He leaves after it is confirmed to him that the victim has checked into another hotel.” OK, wait one minute. How do the Dubai police know that he left “after it is confirmed”? And how do they even know that “it is confirmed” in the first place? This is one of those places where Dubai’s police have made guesses — perhaps educated and perhaps correct — but guesses nevertheless for which no evidence is offered.

7:55: Now this is interesting. Gail checks out of her hotel room. OK. But note that her hair has now been pulled back again and she’s apparently changed from the brown top and white pants she wore to the mall back to the pantsuit that she wore when she arrived. Odd? It also seems like somewhat unusual behavior for people to be checking in and out of hotels so quickly. That seems like the kind of thing that authorities might actually be monitoring (especially for foreigners who have to show their passports).

8:05: Another of those mysterious, unnamed suspects whose face is not seen.

8:08: Peter arrives in a rented car with a driver. First, why hire a driver? Doesn’t that add another person with whom the operative would have come in contact with? Did the Dubai police interview the driver? What did he tell them about Peter?

8:30: Let’s go with the presumption that this is a surveillance team at the airport. But if my job is to surveil, shouldn’t I be inconspicuous instead of wearing a colorful shirt and (at 8:48) kicking my legs in a way bound to draw attention to me? This guy couldn’t possibly be just another bored person waiting at an airport…?

9:15: Gail’s “disguise” is even worse than Kevin’s. All she did was put on a black wig. Same clothing, same bags. Ooh, I’m so confused. Go read an espionage novel. Read about agents doing all sorts of subtle things to change appearance (from cotton in their gums, to slightly different walks, to holding their shoulders differently, and the list goes on). And if the Dubai police were able to figure out these disguises so quickly, one might wonder what the point of the disguise was in the first place. And why is it that only Kevin and Gail use disguises?

10:00: This is one of the more interesting segments of the film and one of the few that really does look like surveillance of al-Mabhouh. It is hard to identify any other purpose for what these two tennis players are doing wandering around the second floor elevator lobby. But note that at 10:30 we can only presume that the blue-shirted tennis player walked past al-Mabhouh’s room to try to find the room number. That seems like a good guess, but still. The Dubai police have interestingly not told us that these two tennis players were staying in another hotel or another floor of this hotel. If they were staying at this hotel (especially on the second floor), might the entire sequence here be viewed differently? And note that the video skips when blue-shirt he walks out of sight. How long was he gone? You’re analysis might be different depending on whether he spent 10 seconds or 10 minutes further down that hallway. How long does white-shirt spend in the elevator lobby waiting for blue-shirt to return?

10:36: The surveillance team uses “special communications devices”. OK, first, what makes the device special? To me, presuming white-shirt guy is holding a communications device, it looks like a light-colored cell phone. Or maybe it was an asthma inhaler. It looked like he held it up to his face, not his ear. Maybe. And if he is a “highly skilled” “professional” why would he ever use that “special communications device” in any place where it could be seen on video?

11:15: Wait a minute! Are the tennis courts or athletic facilities on the same floor as al-Mabhouh’s room? Did the Dubai police do an investigation of whether white-shirt and blue-shirt played tennis at the hotel or whether they had even reserved a court? Again, those are the kinds of little facts that a “highly skilled” team would have thought through and which a thorough investigation would have examined.

11:18: “The room number and the one opposite is communicated to the rest of the team.” And we know this how? I thought that it was probable that those special communications devices were highly encrypted.

11:25: OK. So blue-shirt hangs out while white shirt goes outside and back in. Once again, look how inconspicuous that blue shirt is (not to mention the really ugly socks).

11:42: Um. If this is a surveillance team, why are they leaving?

12:39: Peter makes some phone calls from a hotel business center. I’m having a bit of trouble with this one. First, why use a hotel business center? If any phone is likely to be bugged by Dubai’s police, I’d rank that one pretty high on the list. And why use the same phone to make two calls that can then obviously be linked together? And what happened to throw away cellphones or those special communications devices? Furthermore, does anybody else find it odd that with CCTV virtually everywhere, there doesn’t appear to be a camera in the business center? Finally, I note (from the time stamp in the bottom left) that it only took Peter 8 minutes to make a hotel reservation (for a specific room; how did the team know it would be unoccupied?) and airline reservations including a stop. Have you ever tried to make a hotel reservation by phone? How about an airline reservation? How long did it take? 8 minutes for both?

13:04: I can’t think of a more inconspicuous set of outfits for a surveillance team to wear when standing around a luxury hotel lobby. That bright blue shirt and bright red shirt with great big bags would never be noticed by anybody. One of the basic concepts is to blend in, but it’s more than just blending in. The agent has to be so plain looking that if you were to see him (or her) now and again in 15 minutes, you wouldn’t recognize that you’d seen the person before. Now, would you recall seeing two guys hanging out in bright blue and bright red shirts?

13:45: Here is one of the most interesting (though very subtle) moments in the entire video. Kevin gets into a taxi. OK. Fine. But look at the guy who walks out of the hotel behind Kevin (in a black jacket and blue shirt). Why is his face blurred? The face of the doorman isn’t blurred. We’ve seen lots of “man on the street faces” so far, but why is this particular guy’s face blurred? As Arsenio used to say, “Hmm”.

13:48: Gail leaves with the “other suspects”. Are we convinced that these “other suspects” are people that we’ve seen before?

14:29: “The description of the victim’s car is communicated to the rest of the team.” Again, we know this how? First, there is nothing in the video to indicate time so we have no idea how long after al-Mabhouh left the hotel that red-shirt walked out the front door. Yes, red-shirt uses a cellphone (what happened to the special devices?), but in and of itself, I don’t think that tells us much.

14:36: We’re told that red-shirt “returns to his original position”. Again, how do we know? What was his “original position”? How do we know that is where he went? At least he does a decent job of keeping his hat low enough to obscure his face.

15:22: So how did the team make sure that the room opposite al-Mabhouh’s would be vacant? And would anybody really be so bold as to make a request for a particular, apparently non-descript, room? Wouldn’t that set of all sorts of red flags? “Um, gee, Mr. X, why is it that you want room 237”? And what would have happened if that room was occupied?

15:36: We’re told that Peter gives the room key to Kevin. But we don’t actually see this, do we?

15:54: Gail arrives with two big (inconspicuous) shopping bags. But she didn’t appear to have those bags when she got in the cab at 13:48. So are we sure these are the same person?

16:21: A “suspect” walks into the hotel with a blue hat. We’re told that he goes up to the room wearing a wig. On what basis do we know that he’s wearing a wig? Are we even sure it’s the same guy?

16:50: Gail leaves the hotel. OK, I can see that. But we’re told that she leaves to deliver bags to other team members in the parking lot. Again, we know this how? All we see is that she walks down the sidewalk and then returns without the bags. Sure, it’s a good presumption, but without additional video I’m not quite sure that all other possibilities are eliminated.

17:23: Oooh, the first “execution team”. You know the question to ask. By the way, note how casual these guys look but they do seem careful to keep their heads turned away from the camera.

17:45: Here’s team two! Again, watch how they keep their faces away from the camera (one guy even raises his hand to briefly cover his face). They look a lot more professional that the rest of the “highly skilled” team.

18:05: A new surveillance team arrives. One thing interesting about this is the fact that one member of this team appears to be a woman, yet the passports and information released by Dubai keep referring to an eleven member team with one woman. She manages to keep well hidden with that hat, but her “partner” is quite recognizable.

18:26: Those special communications devices are back. Do you see anything special? Go back and look in the woman’s hand when she walks through the revolving door. There’s something right there in her palm. Would she really hold her special communications device that obviously? And when the camera zooms in on her a few moments later, all I see is a woman on a cellphone who then adjusts her shirt or bra while her partner shields her from view. This is Dubai, after all. But anyway, would they really use their special communications device in the middle of the hotel lobby?

20:39: Another person with their face blurred. And this person spends some time talking to Kevin.

21:01: “Kevin signals the team”. Sorry, missed the signal. But what is it that Kevin is holding in his hand? Was this the attempt to change the door lock for al-Mabhouh’s room? In the elevator lobby?

22:15: I’m certainly willing to acknowledge that Kevin and Gail appear to be up to something as they loiter around the elevator lobby. But is that really the kind of surveillance and monitoring that you’d want? Wouldn’t it have been easier to put a small wireless camera in that plant in the corner? Certainly there have to be better ways to surveil an elevator lobby than having two operatives wander around talking on cellphones right in front of two cameras. And for that matter, shouldn’t they know where those cameras were and take steps to remain out of sight of the cameras?

22:30: “As the execution team acts”. Again, that’s one of those pretty big presumptions.

22:38: The Dubai police suggest that a way to gain access was by reprogramming the lock. But if the lock was reprogrammed, wouldn’t the report say that instead of an “attempt”? Second, if the team could reprogram the lock don’t you think that they’d be able to cover their tracks of having done so? And why just Kevin or Gail posing as hotel staff? Why not one of the other people allegedly in the room across the hall? For that matter, how do we know that the people in the room across the hall (if that' is where they were) didn’t just barge their way into the room as al-Mabhouh was opening his door? This whole thing about how to get into the room seems a bit overly complex, not to mention subject to a whole bunch of things that could go wrong. What if al-Mabhouh wasn’t alone; what if he refused to open the door; what if someone else was in the hallway; what if al-Mabhouh was on the telephone when the door was opened?

22:55: The murder has taken place. OK. And how do we know such an absolutely precise time of death? And it appears that things happened pretty quickly; I find it interesting to note that the alleged execution teams didn’t seem to take any time to interrogate al-Mabhouh before killing him. You know, maybe ask him questions about those arms purchases he was making in Dubai?

23:10: Did you notice that one member of the “execution team” is now wearing a glove or bandage on his hand? Don’t get too worked up over that; he was wearing it when he entered the hotel. I went back and looked.

23:19: Both execution teams wind up riding the same elevator. Sloppy. Very, very sloppy.

24:34: Does Gail look the same here as she did at any other point? Are we sure that Gail isn’t really an amalgam of several women?

24:43: Did you note that when the hotel staff opened the door to al-Mabhouh’s room it "was locked from the inside with the latch and chain in place” (emphasis added)? Interesting, no? What special device was used to accomplish that little trick?

24:51: Also, the initial cause of death was an “increase in blood pressure in the brain”.

25:33: Results “proved that it was a murder and not a natural death”. But all we’re given of that “proof” is a letter from a hospital in Arabic. Moreover, unless it’s just a case of poor wording, it appears that the General Department of State assigned teams to find out “how it was carried out” before they had the proof that anything had been “carried out” and that al-Mabhouh’s hadn’t died of natural causes.

26:00: This is another of the most interesting moments in the entire video (if not the most interesting). Remember how I’ve been talking about the operatives not doing a very good job to keep their faces away from the camera? Right. Watch Gail look directly at the camera and smile! And then, look closely at the face of the woman in the passport photo. Are those the same woman? (For that matter, I’m not sure that the woman in the passport photo isn’t really a man!) And why is this the only time that we see that particular camera angle (presumably of the hotel hallway). Did that camera never see any of the other members of the team? If not, why not?

27:17: A few things to note about all of those passport photos. First, while some of the photos looked like the people in the videos, several did not. Where, for example, are the guys in the “execution teams”? Maybe they’re pictured; maybe not. But where was that third surveillance team, you remember the one with a man and woman? I didn’t see their pictures. And some of those passport pictures were really clear photos. I guess that would be OK if you were wearing a really good disguise when the photo was taken.

Whew. I know. Quite a bit to digest. So what do we make of all this? I suspect that some kind of team of operatives did indeed go to Dubai and kill al-Mabhouh. I’m much less convinced that the entire operation was conducted in the way that Dubai’s police suggest and I’m really not terribly convinced that all of the people shown were involved and/or that others not shown weren’t also involved.

But the bigger question is not whether or how but, obviously, who. Who killed al-Mabhouh? The obvious answer is Israel and certainly that’s where fingers are pointing. But there are other possibilities, starting with the Palestinian Authority and/or Fatah not to mention Hamas itself or maybe even Egypt or Iran. So let’s take a few minutes and examine the possibilities.

First let’s start with the obvious choice: Israel. Clearly Israel has something to be gained by killing al-Mabhouh; after all, he’s wanted by Israeli authorities and he’s a known terrorist who has allegedly been involved in illegal weapons purchases to be smuggled into Gaza. That certainly seems reason enough for Israel to want al-Mabhouh dead. But query whether that is simply too obvious? A Hamas commander is killed, so who else would be the obvious assassin? But why would Israel go through the effort and risk to assassinate al-Mabhouh in Dubai? It would seem a lot easier to get him in, oh, I don’t know, maybe Gaza? Why put 11 or more Israeli operatives at risk, not just in a foreign country, but in an Arab country (and a fairly moderate Arab country friendly to the West), in order to assassinate this one guy? Imagine the problems that Israel would have faced had one of its operatives been captured or killed in Dubai? Imagine if al-Mabhouh had gotten off a lucky shot and killed a member of the team. Al-Jazeera would have loved that one.

We also (on the basis of books and films, not to mention history) have a picture of Mossad as being quite competent. Yet this operation, as I discussed above, was riddled with odd behavior if not outright errors. Is Mossad slipping? Or was this operation intended to look like it was carried out by Israel but actually conducted by operatives without the skill that has given Mossad its reputation?

Here are a few things to think about:

  • Why did the Dubai police look into al-Mabhouh’s death in the first place; after all, he was found dead of apparently natural causes in a locked room.
  • How were the Dubai police able to focus on the 11 alleged members of the assassination squad so quickly? It’s almost as if they were told where to begin looking (or simply to begin looking). Remember, they didn’t open his door until the next day, yet they claim to have discovered the 11 members of the team within 24 hours!
  • Why did so many of the agents (especially Gail in that last scene) seem to make such an effort to look directly at the cameras, rather than trying to keep their faces covered?
  • If Israel was behind the plot, why would the Mossad have used false passports bearing the names of real Israelis? After all, Israel goes to quite a lot of effort to keep its own people (not just Mossad agents) safe. Frankly, I find it odd that Mossad would use stolen identities in the first place (rather than well-crafted false identities that would stand up to initial scrutiny), let alone identities stolen from Israelis.
  • Why would Israel allow 11 agents to be subject to such scrutiny that they can likely never work outside Israel again? After all, Peter, Kevin, and Gail are probably pretty famous and well known to police around the world by now.
  • Was al-Mabhouh really such an important target that Israel would put together this kind of operation, taking these kinds of risks, making these kinds of mistakes, and risking the international condemnation that will no doubt follow?

So, if not Israel, who else might have something to gain from al-Mabhouh’s assassination? As a starting point, it is worth considering whether al-Mabhouh’s assassination was the goal of any other organization or country or whether he was simply the McGuffin to use to frame Israel as having done a “bad thing”. Nobody’s going to believe Israel bombing a plane or a bus, but people are certainly willing to believe that Israel might assassinate a terrorist.

What about the Palestinian Authority or Fatah? The PA and Fatah are practically in a state of civil war with Hamas. Might this have been a part of that civil war? Might this have been a veiled statement to Hamas that the PA and/or Fatah are willing to take the fight global? Then again, perhaps the assassination was part of a power struggle within Hamas. We know that the Syrian-based wing of Hamas and the Gaza-based wing don’t quite see eye-to-eye (especially after the Syrian leaders had the chance to watch their brothers in Gaza get pummeled by Israeli in January 2009). Egypt is itself struggling with Islamic extremism (the Muslim Brotherhood) and has been making a few half-hearted attempts to stop weapons smuggling through Egypt into Gaza. Might this assassination have been an attempt by Egypt to warn Hamas? Finally, Iran stands to gain from any further incitement to violence in the Middle East, both in terms of actual conflict between Hamas or Hezbollah and Israel and in terms of the focus of world attention on Israel and away from Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Or perhaps Iran and al-Mabhouh had a falling out over the arms sales.

One other point worth noting: It has been reported by several sources (though curiously the report is not repeated anywhere near as often as the claim that Israel is responsible) that “[t]wo Palestinians alleged to have provided logistical support to the operation are in custody in Dubai”. Palestinians providing logistical support to an Israeli assassination team? Interesting.

Right now, it seems that there is a rush to judgment to presume that the operation was carried out by Israel. Perhaps it was, though if so, I must say that I’m less impressed with Mossad’s operational skill and technique than I’d anticipated I would be. On the other hand, there are just enough little questions floating around to make me wonder whether this whole operation was put together either by someone else who wanted al-Mabhouh dead or who wanted Israel to take the fall for an assassination. Of, if we want to get really cynical, the operation could have been undertaken by Israel in a way that would divert suspicion off of Israel and onto someone else (“Gee, if we’re real sloppy, no one will seriously believe that we did it…”). Of course, once you start down that road of reasoning there is no stopping.

I’m not saying that Israel didn’t do it. I don’t know; maybe Israel did. But there are just enough odd things, just enough questions, just enough sloppiness, to make one wonder whether Israel is responsible and sloppy or whether someone else wants us to think that Israel was responsible.

It will be interesting to see how this whole investigation plays out. It will be interesting to see how forthcoming Dubai is with additional facts that “prove” the case. If nothing else, it makes for a pretty interesting spy movie.

[updated February 24, 2010]

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Expressions of Anti-Semitism Becauase Israel Helps Haiti

Israel has sent doctors, a field hospital, and medical supplies to Haiti. Anti-Semites can't let good deeds like that go unpunished. Please take a few minutes and read this article from blogger Andrew Holland: Israel's Haiti relief elicits both praise and condemnation. That is what we're fighting against.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Who Is Ready to Help Haiti?

Out of curiosity, I did a quick scan around the Internet this morning to see which countries have offered or begun supplying aid and assistance to Haiti following yesterday's devastating earthquake. To be consistent in my unscientific search, I simply searched for the website of the ministry of foreign affairs of a number of countries and looked to see if there was a statement about Haiti. If not, I searched for "Haiti" (presuming that the site offered a search function). So, as of 1:00pm, the day following the earthquake, here are the nations that have offered aid or begun supplying assistance:
United States
United Kingdom
Israel (see Israeli search and rescue delegation departs to Haiti)
The United Nations also has a page devoted the Haiti and notes that Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called for international assitance.

The websites of the foreign ministries of the following nations do not mention the earthquake or any aid or support:
Dominical Republic
Saudi Arabia
After that, I got bored.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Perhaps nothing; perhaps some countries just don't update their websites that often (though most appear to...). And perhaps these countries have made formal statements that haven't been reflected on their websites. Who knows.

I don't find it particularly interesting that the US has offered aid. I do find it interesting that France, the former colonial power in Haiti, hasn't said anything yet. Also, somewhat surprising is the silence of both Venezuela and Cuba, both of whom always seem to be trying to position themselves as important actors in the region. You'd think that they'd be rushing to get aid to Haiti faster than the US, just to show that they could. Furthermore, note that neither Japan (which has extensive experience with earthquake recovery) or China (which suffered a devastating quake of its own last year) appears to have offered help.

On the the other hand, Israel has already dispatched aid even though it does not have bilateral relations with Haiti. In other words, those "evil" Israelis, living half a world away, have been able to dispatch aid before many of the "great powers" or regional actors. Maybe things that like this should at least be noted when the world tries to throw Israel under the proverbial bus. Ah, but alas, I suspect that most people will view this as some kind of cynical ploy by Israel rather than a sign of true concern. Of course, Israel also offered aid to Iran following in earthquake there (which was rejected) and did provide aid following earthquakes in China, India, and Turkey as well as aid following the Indiana Ocean tsunami. But evidence that Israel is truly concerned with the situation of Haitians (or Iranians or Chinese or any others who are victims of a natural disaster) wouldn't square so well with the narrative of the evil, apartheid, Nazi, organ-stealing Jews propounded by much of the world.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are Israeli Settlements Really Such a Problem? A Primer

In discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or lack thereof), one of the things that has been getting much attention recently is the issue of settlements. I don’t want to go into a lengthy, drawn-out history lesson or argument about whether Israel did this or the Palestinians did that. But I do want to make a few brief (well, at least by my standards…) comments on the whole issue of settlements.

First, I don’t think that construction of settlements in the West Bank is a very good idea. However, note that I say that from the perspective of an American supporter of Israel and not from the perspective of an Israeli. I think that the existence of settlements may make an eventual peace deal harder (though not impossible) to achieve.

That said, I think that it is important to remember several things and to draw several important distinctions. First, there are really about five kinds of “settlements” and two of those don’t bother me at all. I suspect that most Americans, when they hear the term “settlement” are picturing one of the numerous hilltop enclaves, often consisting of nothing more than a few trailers, erected by far-right or orthodox Israelis.The Israeli government has done a decent (though not perfect) job of dismantling and removing these hilltop settlements from time to time. Another type of settlement involves the creation of a Jewish village or neighborhood in or near Arab villages or towns that don’t otherwise have a Jewish population (or which had a Jewish population until massacred or driven out by Palestinians; Hebron, for example). The third type of settlement is the frontier-style farming community. Then there are the much larger “settlements” which are really, in essence, suburbs of Jerusalem. The most well-known of these is Ma’ale Adumim which has a population of over 30,000. Think Noblesville and Indianapolis for a decent comparison. Finally, there are actual neighborhoods of Jerusalem (like Gilo) that are technically settlements.

So, for example, this week the Obama administration criticized Israel for additional construction planned in Gilo. It is important to understand that what is being planned is not a new village in the middle of nowhere but rather expansion of an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Furthermore, one thing to note is that this area is often referred to as “Arab East Jerusalem” or “Palestinian Jerusalem” but those terms are meaningless. Jerusalem existed as a single city with a majority Jewish population until 1948. From 1948 to 1967, the city was divided in two with Jordan (not “Palestine”) holding the eastern half of the city (and refusing to permit Jews entry). Finally, in 1967 when Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan and following Jordan’s decision to enter the Six Day War, the city was again reunited. (Similarly, Gaza, which was supposed to be part of the Arab state in the 1948 partition plan, was captured and occupied by Egypt in 1948.) To call the eastern part of Jerusalem (which includes the Old City) “Arab East Jerusalem” is to pre-determine the outcome of one of the most difficult parts of a final peace treaty.

It is also critical to remember how small Israel really is (8,522 square miles; compare that to Indiana’s 36,418 square miles) and that much of it (nearly 50%) is desert. While some settlements are constructed with political or religious motives, others are built simply because people need a place to live!

Some suggest that the settlements in and around Jerusalem are nothing more than a “land grab” by Israel. However, that argument is belied by the fact that in previous peace negotiations (including the 2000 Camp David and Taba negotiations from which Yasser Arafat walked away), Israel offered to cede portions of Israel outside the West Bank or Gaza to the new Palestinian state in exchange for the areas to be ceded to Israel due to the presence of settlements. (Of course, Israeli Arabs wanted no part of having their citizenship transferred from Israel to the a new Palestinian state…)

Furthermore, ask yourself this question: Why is it that we all seem to expect that a component of any final peace deal will require Jews living in the areas that become part of an independent Palestine to leave their homes and move back to Israel yet we have no expectation at all that Palestinians living in Israel (who make up over 20% of the Israeli population) would be expected, let alone forced, to leave their homes and move to the new Palestinian state?

And don’t be fooled by recent pronouncements from some in the Palestinian Authority that Jews living in the settlements would be welcome to stay in an independent Palestine. First, if the Palestinian Authority was serious about this, then why would a cessation of settlement activity by a pre-condition to peace negotiations? After all, if Israeli settlers would be “welcome” in a Palestinian state, why not encourage the continued growth of settlements and the economic prosperity that they bring. Second, do you think many Jews would feel safe (let alone comfortable) living in a newly independent Palestinian state? Would the rule of law really apply and would Jews really be treated as equal citizens with the right to practice their chosen religion? Finally, don’t forget what happened shortly after Israel forcibly removed settlers from Gaza. Palestinians promptly destroyed $14 million worth of greenhouses that had been erected in Gaza by Israelis and left for the Palestinians to use.

One other thing to think about when you hear someone criticize Israeli settlement practices: Why don’t we hear corresponding criticism of the failure of the Palestinian authority to build settlements. Between the West Bank and Gaza, there are still twenty-seven official refugee camps housing approximately 688,000 “refugees”! Why haven’t Palestinian authorities built their own farming villages, neighborhoods, suburbs, and other living accommodations for these people instead of leaving them to rot in refugee camps? For that matter, why hasn’t the rest of the Arab world -- which is supposedly so concerned with the plight of the Palestinians and so opposed to Israeli “expansion” -- done anything to help build Palestinian infrastructure (whether physical infrastructure or the infrastructure of a functioning government)?

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t think that continued construction of Israeli settlements (and here I really mean true settlements, not the suburbs and neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem) is a good idea and will, in all likelihood, make peace more difficult. But I don’t understand why settlements should be a pre-condition to negotiations; after all, aren’t settlements and settlers precisely one of the issues to be addressed in negotiations?

The Palestinians need to stop finding reasons not to make peace. If they want Peace, all they need to do is show up at the negotiating table and start talking (of course the cessation of terrorist activity and an end to incitement would be nice steps, too).

Update: Shortly after completing this post (but before it went live), I came across the following from Sarah Palin's interview with Barbara Walters:
I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.
Does Sarah Palin know something that I don't? Or is she just hoping that Jews will flock back to Israel so that end times prophecies she appears to believe in will come true?


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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NPR’s Bias in Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I like National Public Radio (NPR). I really do. NPR’s programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered are my primary news source and I look forward to sitting in my car and listening to NPR news. However, I’ve long felt that NPR’s reporting was unfairly biased against Israel. For example, in January of this year, I criticized NPR’s reporting of the fighting in Gaza. NPR is not alone in anti-Israel bias, but a news organization with the reputation that NPR has should not be so obviously biased. And a report on yesterday’s edition of All Things Considered was so biased that I had to comment.

The report in question was presented by NPR’s new (as of June 2009) Jerusalem bureau chief, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. NPR’s site has both the audio and transcript of the story. For convenience (and in case the transcript is later removed), here is the full text of the story:


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

It has been a violent week in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israeli police have been deployed in and around the Old City. That's after several days of clashes between Muslim residents of east Jerusalem and Israeli security forces. Today, Israeli police arrested a cleric accused of inciting the violence.

From Jerusalem, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just outside the al-Aqsa Mosque compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount, around a dozen Israeli policemen stood guard this afternoon, making sure that no men under the age of 50 entered - restrictions that had been put in place because of the recent unrest.

Unidentified Children: (Chanting) (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A group of children walk by the policemen chanting: With our heart and our blood we will sacrifice all to you, al-Aqsa. One throws a rock, and then they all run down a cobblestone alleyway. The tensions are palpable here. For the past 10 days there have been numerous confrontations that have resulted in arrests and injuries.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel annexed it after the 1967 war, a move that has not been recognized by the international community. The friction now centers around the mosque compound, which stands on a vast stone platform that was once the site of an ancient Jewish temple.

The orator of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Akramah Sabri, says that the recent unrest was kicked off by worries that extremist settler groups will be allowed in joining the current Jewish festival of Sukkot. He says that at least 400 Palestinians are holed up inside the mosque.

Mr. AKRAMAH SABRI (Orator, Al-Aqsa Mosque): (Through Translator) They are there to defend the holy sanctuary. They are not taking action against the Israelis. We are providing them with food and drink while they sleep at the site.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For its part, Israel alleges that the violence is part of a coordinated campaign led by Muslim extremists in both the West Bank and Israel's Arab community. Micky Rosenfeld is the Israeli police spokesperson.

Mr. MICKY ROSENFELD (Spokesman, Israel Police): We can see that there's definitely incitement going on both from within inside East Jerusalem, as well as from leaders from the north.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This evening, one of the men Israel accuses of fostering discontent was detained. Raed Salah, head of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, was taken into custody. He has been arrested numerous times before. NPR spoke with him before his arrest at a crowded tent just outside the walls of the Old City, where he was holding court.

Mr. RAED SALAH (Israel Islamic Movement): (Through Translator) My message is first to Israel. Give back the sanctuary to its lawful owners. I also call on Palestinians who are able to come out to the holy sanctuary to come and stay there to protect it from these Jewish aggressors. They should come and pray whenever they can in order to show their presence and strength.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, was triggered in 2000 after a visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Salah said he does not rule out another uprising.

Mr. SALAH: (Through Translator) They are Judaizing the whole of Jerusalem. They are turning it into a Jewish entity away from its real identity as a sanctuary that represents Muslims worldwide.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the Old City, Samir Shaludi(ph), who owns a small grocery store, says he expects more trouble.

Mr. SAMIR SHALUDI: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think it will escalate, he says. They won't stop, and we won't stop. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

Did you find any bias in that story? Well, let’s go back and take a much closer look at Garcia-Navarro’s report. First, let’s look at Garcia-Navarro’s very first statement:

Just outside the al-Aqsa Mosque compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount …

The bias here is subtle, but present. By referring to the area in question as the al-Aqsa Mosque and then noting that Jews have a different name, Garcia-Navarro is essentially telling listeners that the Muslim name for the site is correct while the Jewish name is at best limited to Jews or possibly even wrong. This has the effect of legitimizing Muslim claims to the site and delegitimizing competing Jewish claims. Think how much less biased (and more objective) the report would have begun had Garcia-Navarro simply said:

Just outside the site known to Muslims as the al-Aqsa Mosque and Jews as the Temple Mount …

A slight word change provides balance in place of subtle bias.

Garcia-Navarro then mentions a group of children throwing a rock at Israeli police. Of course the image conjured up by this description is of the poor, helpless Palestinians –- children no less! –- being tormented by the big, bad Israeli military machine. Of course, her description fails to explain to the listener that it is not just children throwing stones. Garcia-Navarro fails to mention that Israeli police found wheelbarrows full of rocks that had been smuggled into the mosque compound, apparently in preparation for pre-planned riots. She fails to mention that Muslims threw stones at Orthodox Jews (civilians) the day before. And Garcia-Navarro fails to explain that in previous riots, Muslims have thrown stones from the mosque compound over the Western Wall and down onto worshipping Jewish civilians. A description of Muslims pre-planning riots where the could throw rocks on Jewish worshippers certainly creates a different image than Garcia-Navarro’s description of a group of children throwing a rock.

The next statement in Garcia-Navarro’s report is the most troubling, by far:

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel annexed it after the 1967 war, a move that has not been recognized by the international community. The friction now centers around the mosque compound, which stands on a vast stone platform that was once the site of an ancient Jewish temple.

There are several things from this statement that deserve comment. It is true that Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital; it is true that Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six Day War (in 1967); and it is true that most of the international community has not recognized that annexation. However, Garcia-Navarro’s shorthand description does not provide all of the necessary context for these facts. Without going into a long, drawn out history lesson, it is worth noting that from 1948 until 1967, East Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan, not Palestinians. Moreover, during that period, Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount or worship at the Western (Wailing) Wall (more on that in a minute). Once Israel gained control over East Jerusalem (in a defensive war), the decision could have been made to take control of the Temple Mount (in particular the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount) away from the Muslims; many on the far right want a new Jewish Temple to be built on the site. But Israel choose to allow the Muslim Waqf to retain control of the al-Aqsa Mosque and to allow Muslims to continue to worship there. If Israelis are so evil, why did they choose to treat Muslim worshippers better then they themselves were treated by the Muslims between 1948 and 1967? Garcia-Navarro mentions none of this; nor does she remind listeners that the final status of Jerusalem and its holy sites is one of most difficult issues to be negotiated as a part of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

And when Garcia-Navarro mentions friction, is she talking about the overall friction between Israelis and Palestinians or is she talking about the more immediate rioting? Because if she is referring to the overall friction, then she is playing into the Palestinian talking position that Israel should not be allowed to control the Western Wall (in fact, some Palestinian leaders have even argued that there is no archeological evidence linking Judaism and Jews to Jerusalem).

And now read, once again, the final sentence of that last part of Garcia-Navarro’s report. I’ve added a bit of emphasis this time:

The friction now centers around the mosque compound, which stands on a vast stone platform that was once the site of an ancient Jewish temple.

Did you notice anything in that last statement? According to Garcia-Navarro’s report, the al-Aqsa Mosque stands on the site of an ancient Jewish temple. “An” ancient temple, as if it was one of many. In a report aired on Monday on Morning Edition (but which is not available on NPR’s website), also by Garcia-Navarro, she noted that the al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. However in neither that report nor the one that I’ve reprinted above, did Garcia-Navarro also mention that the Temple Mount (in particular the Western Wall) is the holiest site (perhaps even the only holy site) to Jews! Yet in Garcia-Navarro’s warped world, the Temple Mount and Western Wall are reduced from Judaism’s holiest site to merely the site of an ancient temple (as if there were many…). When Muslims pray, they face Mecca (the holiest site in Islam; they don’t face the Al-Aqsa Mosque); by comparison, when Jews pray they face Jerusalem and, in particular, the Temple Mount. Yet with the simple use of the word “an” Garcia-Navarro endeavors to erase millennia of Jewish connection to Jerusalem and to the ancient Temple.

So, let’s continue to look at Garcia-Navarro’s report:

The orator of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Akramah Sabri, says that the recent unrest was kicked off by worries that extremist settler groups will be allowed in joining the current Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Think about what is being said. Muslims are worried that extremist settler groups “will be allowed [to join] the current Jewish festival of Sukkot”. Oh, my. Jews might be allowed to worship? How could that be permitted. Jews might be permitted to worship at the holiest site in Judaism? Gasp! We must prevent such outrages. Perhaps we should riot! Really, think about it. That’s what Garcia-Navarro and Mr. Sabri are saying, isn’t it? And of course Garcia-Navarro completely fails to mention that for the month of Ramadan, Israeli police took security precautions to be sure that Muslims were permitted to worship at the al-Aqsa Mosque. How unfair those Israelis must be!

The rest of the report essentially contains more of the same. Rather than continue a virtual line-by-line discussion, let me just point out a few highlights (or would those be lowlights?). First, I note that Garcia-Navarro interviews or quotes three Muslims (Akramah Sabri, Raed Salah [one of the men Israel accuses of instigating the current violence), and Samir Shaludi). Between them, they get approximately 125 words in Garcia-Navarro’s report. On the Israeli side, one Israeli police spokesman is quoted and he gets a mere 25 words. And note that Garcia-Navarro does not solicit comments from Israeli civilians or Jewish worshippers. “Man in the street” interviews are limited to Muslims.

It is also worth noting that Garcia-Navarro provides no context to the statements from the Muslims that she interviews. For example, Mr. Sabri claims that Muslims “are there [the al-Aqsa Mosque] to defend the holy sanctuary”. Yet Garcia-Navarro fails to note that Jews, let alone Jewish “extremists,” have not tried to wrest control of the al-Aqsa Mosque from Muslims. Similarly, when Garcia-Navarro interviews Mr. Salah, she fails to note that he is an Israeli citizen, and not a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Imagine the audacity of those Israelis to arrest an Israeli citizen for trying to incite violence against Israel! Moreover, she does not challenge Mr. Salah’s plea:

Give back the sanctuary to its lawful owners. I also call on Palestinians who are able to come out to the holy sanctuary to come and stay there to protect it from these Jewish aggressors.

If her interest was in a balanced report, Garcia-Navarro might have asked Mr. Salah what Jewish aggressors he was referring to. Or she might have noted, as mentioned previously, that Israel has allowed the Muslim Waqf to maintain control of the al-Aqsa Mosque. But a listener without a thorough understanding of the history and issues involved, might be led to believe that Israel had taken the al-Aqsa Mosque from its “lawful owners” (and who might those be, anyway?) or that Jewish aggressors were, in fact, trying to take control of the Mosque.

In fact, Garcia-Navarro exacerbates the problem by not only failing to add this context, but by then adopting and stating as “fact” the Palestinian narrative of the events leading up to the Second Intifada:

The Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, was triggered in 2000 after a visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

That “trigger” is commonly claimed by Palestinians; however, facts don’t support the claim (for example, it appears that there was quite a bit of pre-planning that went into the supposedly spontaneous riots; add to that, the fact that the violence seems to have been orchestrated by Yasser Arafat as a way to deflect attention from his unwillingness to agree to a peace deal). Yet Garcia-Navarro uncritically repeats the claim as fact, again making Israel look bad. And note what “bad act” is said to have caused the entire Second Intifada: A visit by Ariel Sharon (who was not at the time the Prime Minister). A mere “visit”; not a “taking control of” or an “attack” or even a “demonstration” or “speech”; just a “visit”. In other words, we are expected to accept the Palestinian claim that spontaneous riots that lasted for years broke out merely because of a visit by Ariel Sharon. But a discussion of the origins of the Second Intifada and the birth of Pallywood is beyond the scope of this post.

Perhaps the entire story is properly summed up by the grocery store owner that Garcia-Navarro quotes at the conclusion of her report:

They are Judaizing the whole of Jerusalem. They are turning it into a Jewish entity away from its real identity as a sanctuary that represents Muslims worldwide.

In other words, Jews are trying to turn Jerusalem, the very center and focus of Jewish life for millennia, long before the birth of either Christ or Muhammad, into something Jewish and prevent it from being a “sanctuary” for Muslims (notwithstanding that prior to 1948 or even 1967 Jerusalem was essentially ignored by Islam, notwithstanding that Islam’s holiest places are secure in Saudi Arabia, and notwithstanding, that prior to 1948, Jerusalem had a very large Jewish population).

When it comes to disputes as complicated and difficult to resolve as those between Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, NPR does its listeners a tremendous disservice by offering biased, rather than balanced, reporting. Furthermore, by offering biased reporting of the kind found in Garcia-Navarro’s report, NPR may be encouraging even more anti-Israel actions or violence. That is not how a well-respected news organization should behave.


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Friday, July 31, 2009

LibraryThing: "The Deadliest Lies"

I've updated my LibraryThing catalog with a brief review of The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control by Abraham H. Foxman.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Hamas Child Care

Over the years, and especially during and immediately after the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, we've been treated (subjected?) to innumerable pictures of alleged Palestinian suffering. I say "alleged" because there is plenty of evidence that many of the images that we've seen have been either doctored or staged. I'll leave that discussion for another day. In the meantime, I thought that I'd share some photos of children, mostly in Gaza, that we don't normally see in the mainstream media and which we certainly don't see from Israel's critics. Here, then, is child-care, Hamas-style (the green headband is a Hamas symbol; a yellow headband represents Hezbollah):

Hamas terrorists teach the art of suicide bombing to a 5-year-old. (Israel News Agency)assud.JPG

I know that the bunny picture requires a bit of explanation. Assud the bunny was one of the stars of a Hamas children’s television program entitled “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” which airs on Hamas’ official TV station. The show was apparently modeled on Barney and Sesame Street (and had a Mickey Mouse lookalike). However, as you can see from the translation above (provided by Palestinian Media Watch), Assud the bunny taught children lessons far different from those taught by Barney, Big Bird, or Mickey Mouse. Assud, like several of the characters that preceded him was “martyred” (in the case of Assud, he “died” during the recent conflict in Gaza and on his deathbed called for the liberation of Tel Aviv and Haifa).

Of all the pictures on this page, I think that the pigtails, pink hair clips, bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks contrasted with the headband, gun, and flak jacket is the hardest to look at.child-of-hamas by steppenwolf391.image image

I know that it may be hard to see, but note the burning Israeli flag in the above-picture.

image imageFor those who don’t recognize it, the building with the golden dome on the table is the Al-Aqsa mosque (a called the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem. Despite Israel’s control of east Jerusalem, the mosque and its environs remain under control of the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem. For what it’s worth, it is also worth remembering that when Jordan controlled east Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to visit the Western (Wailing) Wall which is adjacent to Al-Aqsa.image Image Hosted by ImageShack.usImage Hosted by

I could probably find thousands more similar pictures online, but I think that the point has been made. I understand that the Palestinians have issues with Israel and Jews; I understand that they believe that they have been wrongfully dispossessed of that which they believe belongs to them. But what does it say of a society that it would glorify war and martyrdom, especially suicide martyrdom, among its children?

How can peace ever be achieved, let alone sustained, when one side has indoctrinated its children with such a mindset of violence, hate, and death.

Leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah often say: “We love death more than the Jews love life.” These pictures make me think that we should take them at their word.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

A Sampling of Signs from the "Tea Bag" Parties That You Didn't See on the News (update 1)

I wanted to take a brief moment to show an advertising graphic that was used to promote last week's tea parties. This graphic was used by the Bay Area Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty to promote the tea party in San Mateo, California.

The text on the graphic (I tried to enlarge it, but I wasn't able to make it more readable) says: "Uncle Sam Reminds You: KEEP PAYING TAXES. The ongoing extermination of Palestinian Children Can’t be Done Without Your Help."

At least California's GOP Chairman condemned the poster. But what does it say about either Ron Paul, his supporters, or the tax parties in general, that a poster this despicable was used in the first place?

Anyone who truly believes that these tea parties were simply grassroots gatherings of people who believe that their taxes are too high needs to take a bit of time and examine how those tea parties were organized and promoted (hint: Fox News) and the messages espoused (secession, revolution, and racism among others). Some on the right are upset about the recent report from the Department of Homeland Security warning about the possibility of violence from right-wing extremists. After listening to some of the messages and looking at some of the posters from the tea parties, it seems that DHS may have gotten things absolutely right and we should be worried.

Update: I found a larger, readable version of the poster.


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Friday, April 10, 2009

What Do Israeli Arabs Think? (update)

A few weeks ago, I posted several articles by Israeli Arabs that offered a different view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than the views most commonly heard from the Arab and Muslim world. Included in that prior post was an article by Israel's deputy consul general to America's Pacific northwest region. Lest anyone think that he is merely a token Muslim appointed to a diplomatic post by Israel or that his views are an aberration, I offer the article "Apartheid in Israel: The facts say otherwise" from Reda Mansour, an Israeli Druze (a branch of Islam) and Israel's consul general to the southeastern United States:

A few years ago I began an initiative at the Israeli Foreign Ministry aimed at opening a dialogue with Muslim communities in the West. When the first delegations of European and American Muslims started to arrive, they were amazed at the coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

For many outside of Israel, their perception of the country has been framed by the international media. They have allowed their opinions to be shaped by a constant stream of pictures and articles with one main idea: Between Arabs and Jews there can be only hatred and violence.

With this mind-set, the delegates traveled to Haifa, Israel, one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, a place where beauty is about more than geography. In Haifa, the Muslim delegations visited a major university with an Arab Muslim vice president and many Arab students. They went to markets and offices and observed Arabs and Jews peacefully going about their simple daily lives.

The delegations heard the call to prayer of the muezzin. They visited the mosque of the Ahmadi Islamic sect, Muslims persecuted in many parts of the world who have flourished in Israel, and traveled near the world Baha’i religious center, a faith persecuted in Iran. They met some of the more than 100 Islamic family court judges and talked with the imams who provide religious services; both groups are paid by the Israeli government.

In a regular Israeli parliament session, there are an average of 15 Arab members, some of whom are part of self-proclaimed Zionist parties. Israel has Arab members of parliament and in the Cabinet; it has Arab ambassadors and high-ranking Arab officers in the military.

Yet despite examples of diversity like these, some critics persist in trying to apply the terrible adjective of apartheid to the State of Israel. The facts on the ground, however, show nothing even remotely close to a racist system. For while one can claim that Arabs in Israel do not receive enough government attention or investment in their community, or one can argue that the situation for Israeli Arabs is sensitive as a minority in a country that has gone to war with its Arab neighbors, all of these issues are political and have nothing to do with race.

There is no apartheid in Israel. Nor is there apartheid in Gaza and the West Bank. The territories came under Israeli control in 1967 following the Six-Day War, and over the next 20 years Israel controlled them with nearly no security measures: almost no checkpoints, no fences and no controlled roads.

However, during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 and again during the 1990s, Israel was forced to toughen its security measures. The country had to protect its citizens because the terrorists of Hamas made suicide bombing their tactic of choice and shopping malls, night clubs, schools and hotels their primary targets.

Before the uprising began, more then 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. In every Palestinian household there was at least one person who worked in Israel. The workers entered the country freely and their standard of living was among the highest in the Middle East.

Only after 25 years of controlling the territories and having its citizens targeted by terror did Israel begin to institute the security measures that some are trying to call “apartheid.” That is why it has been so hard to make the charges stick. Israel, like any other country, is not perfect. The country and its diverse population still admittedly face political and security issues. But apartheid? You must be joking. Israel and the international community are ready for Palestinian freedom and independence. The question is, are the Palestinians?

The greatest problem facing the Palestinians today is not Israel or illusionary “apartheid” but a lack of unified and visionary leadership. Palestinians need to understand that violent action will never yield the results they want and that serving as a useful distraction for the regime in Tehran will never bring prosperity.

The Palestinians need to produce their own Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi -- a leader who will demonstrate to them that nonviolence is a much more successful tool for freedom and coexistence.

I'm going to start collecting articles from Israeli Arabs and Muslims that show that the dispute is not quite so black and white, that Israel is not the monster that the rest of the Arab and Muslim world (and Jimmy Carter) would have people believe, and that life for Israel's Arab and Muslim populations, not to mention its other ethnic and religious minorities, is far better than that of minority communities in much of the rest of the world (and certainly is not apartheid). While there may be individual policies for which criticism of Israel is fair, the treatment of minority populations ("apartheid" for example) should not be among those criticisms. Too many liberals in America and Europe have been quick to condemn Israel and support the Palestinians without really thinking through the issues and really hearing both sides. Perhaps hearing what some Israeli Arabs and Muslims have to say will help broaden the horizons and perspectives of the discussion. Then again, that would require an open mind and intellectual honesty, wouldn't it?


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For Those Who Think Hamas Are the "Good Guys"

One of the best ways to understand the thoughts and intentions of the Muslim and Arab world is to watch and listen to their own TV and radio and read their newspapers. It turns out that what is said in Arabic is often quite different from what is said to international audiences. Unfortunately, given that so few westerners speak Arabic, it can be very difficult to find out what is really being said and it is rare for our western media outlets to report on what is really being said in the Arabic-language press (like Al-Jezeera). To that end, there is MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) and the MEMRI TV Reserach Project which follow the Arabic-language press and offer translations for western viewers.

By way of recent example, take this "drama" presented at Gaza Islamic University during a festival to commemorate the founder of Hamas and then broadcast on Al-Aqsa TV on April 3, 2009 (if you don't want to watch, here is the transcript). The material is too abhorrent and disgusting for me to embed or reprint here (focusing as it does on the blood libel). But it is worth viewing and/or reading in order to see what is being presented on the official Palestinian TV network. Browsing through MEMRI's other offerings will show that this is not an isolated incident. When a Palestinian resident of Gaza turns on their TV, this is the kind of material that they can watch. It makes even FOX News seem fair and balanced.

The next time that someone tells you that Hamas wants peace or that the Palestinians don't teach hate or that Muslim clerics offer only peaceful messages, show them this clip or just tell them to look around at MEMRI and see what the Palestinians and other Arab nations really have to say about America, Israel, and Jews.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Do Israeli Arabs Think?

I've recently come across two very interesting articles that are worth reading for what they have to say about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I've re-posted the articles in their entirety because I think that they are important and because I don't know how long they will be freely available online. The first article, On Campus: The Pro-Palestinians' Real Agenda (posted at Hudson New York) is an interesting (and disturbing) read:

During a recent visit to several university campuses in the U.S., I discovered that there is more sympathy for Hamas there than there is in Ramallah.

Listening to some students and professors on these campuses, for a moment I thought I was sitting opposite a Hamas spokesman or a would-be-suicide bomber.

I was told, for instance, that Israel has no right to exist, that Israel’s “apartheid system” is worse than the one that existed in South Africa and that Operation Cast Lead was launched only because Hamas was beginning to show signs that it was interested in making peace and not because of the rockets that the Islamic movement was launching at Israeli communities.

I was also told that top Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in prison for masterminding terror attacks against Israeli civilians, was thrown behind bars simply because he was trying to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Furthermore, I was told that all the talk about financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority was “Zionist propaganda” and that Yasser Arafat had done wonderful things for his people, including the establishment of schools, hospitals and universities.

The good news is that these remarks were made only by a minority of people on the campuses who describe themselves as “pro-Palestinian,” although the overwhelming majority of them are not Palestinians or even Arabs or Muslims.

The bad news is that these groups of hard-line activists/thugs are trying to intimidate anyone who dares to say something that they don’t like to hear.

When the self-designated “pro-Palestinian” lobbyists are unable to challenge the facts presented by a speaker, they resort to verbal abuse.

On one campus, for example, I was condemned as an “idiot” because I said that a majority of Palestinians voted for Hamas in the January 2006 election because they were fed up with financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

On another campus, I was dubbed as a “mouthpiece for the Zionists” because I said that Israel has a free media. There was another campus where someone told me that I was a ‘liar” because I said that Barghouti was sentenced to five life terms because of his role in terrorism.

And then there was the campus (in Chicago) where I was “greeted” with swastikas that were painted over posters promoting my talk. The perpetrators, of course, never showed up at my event because they would not be able to challenge someone who has been working in the field for nearly 30 years. What struck me more than anything else was the fact that many of the people I met on the campuses supported Hamas and believed that it had the right to “resist the occupation” even if that meant blowing up children and women on a bus in downtown Jerusalem.

I never imagined that I would need police protection while speaking at a university in the U.S. I have been on many Palestinian campuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and I cannot recall one case where I felt intimidated or where someone shouted abuse at me.

Ironically, many of the Arabs and Muslims I met on the campuses were much more understanding and even welcomed my “even-handed analysis” of the Israeli-Arab conflict. After all, the views I voiced were not much different than those made by the leaderships both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These views include support for the two-state solution and the idea of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in this part of the world.

The so-called pro-Palestinian “junta” on the campuses has nothing to offer other than hatred and de-legitimization of Israel. If these folks really cared about the Palestinians, they would be campaigning for good government and for the promotion of values of democracy and freedom in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Their hatred for Israel and what it stands for has blinded them to a point where they no longer care about the real interests of the Palestinians, namely the need to end the anarchy and lawlessness, and to dismantle all the armed gangs that are responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent Palestinians over the past few years.

The majority of these activists openly admit that they have never visited Israel or the Palestinian territories. They don’t know -and don’t want to know - that Jews and Arabs here are still doing business together and studying together and meeting with each other on a daily basis because they are destined to live together in this part of the world. They don’t want to hear that despite all the problems life continues and that ordinary Arab and Jewish parents who wake up in the morning just want to send their children to school and go to work before returning home safely and happily.

What is happening on the U.S. campuses is not about supporting the Palestinians as much as it is about promoting hatred for the Jewish state. It is not really about ending the “occupation” as much as it is about ending the existence of Israel.

Many of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials I talk to in the context of my work as a journalist sound much more pragmatic than most of the anti-Israel, “pro-Palestinian” folks on the campuses.

Over the past 15 years, much has been written and said about the fact that Palestinian school textbooks don’t promote peace and coexistence and that the Palestinian media often publishes anti-Israel material.

While this may be true, there is no ignoring the fact that the anti-Israel campaign on U.S. campuses is not less dangerous. What is happening on these campuses is not in the frame of freedom of speech. Instead, it is the freedom to disseminate hatred and violence. As such, we should not be surprised if the next generation of jihadists comes not from the Gaza Strip or the mountains and mosques of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but from university campuses across the U.S.

Beyond the subject matter of this article, what is really striking is its authorship. While I suspect that the title of this post gave things away, the article was written by an Israeli, but not by a Jew. The author?

Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim, is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades.

He studied at Hebrew University and began his career as a reporter by working for a PLO-affiliated newspaper in Jerusalem.

Abu Toameh currently works for the international media, serving as the “eyes and ears” of foreign journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abu Toameh’s articles have appeared in numerous newspapers around the world, including The Wall Street Journal, US News & World Report and The Sunday Times of London.

Since 2002 he has been writing on Palestinian affairs for The Jerusalem Post.

Abu Toameh has also been working as a producer and consultant for NBC News since 1989.

Perhaps even more striking is the article "Lost in a blur of slogans" published at SFGate (a part of the San Francisco Chronicle's website; emphasis and typos in original):

For those who haven't heard, the first week in March has been designated as Israel Apartheid Week by activists who are either ill intentioned or misinformed. On American campuses, organizing committees are planning happenings to once again castigate Israel as the lone responsible party for all that maligns the Middle East.

Last year, at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to "dialogue" with some of the organizers of these events. My perspective is unique, both as the vice consul for Israel in San Francisco, and as a Bedouin and the highest-ranking Muslim representing the Israel in the United States. I was born into a Bedouin tribe in Northern Israel, one of 11 children, and began life as shepherd living in our family tent. I went on to serve in the Israeli border police, and later earned a master's degree in political science from Tel Aviv University before joining the Israel Foreign Ministry.

I am a proud Israeli - along with many other non-Jewish Israelis such as Druze, Bahai, Bedouin, Christians and Muslims, who live in one of the most culturally diversified societies and the only true democracy in the Middle East. Like America, Israeli society is far from perfect, but let us deals honestly. By any yardstick you choose - educational opportunity, economic development, women and gay's rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation - Israel's minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East

So, I would like to share the following with organizers of Israel Apartheid week, for those of them who are open to dialogue and not blinded by a hateful ideology:

You are part of the problem, not part of the solution: If you are really idealistic and committed to a better world, stop with the false rhetoric. We need moderate people to come together in good faith to help find the path to relieve the human suffering on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Vilification and false labeling is a blind alley that is unjust and takes us nowhere.

You deny Israel the fundamental right of every society to defend itself: You condemn Israel for building a security barrier to protect its citizens from suicide bombers and for striking at buildings from which missiles are launched at its cities - but you never offer an alternative. Aren't you practicing yourself a deep form of racism by denying an entire society the right to defend itself?

Your criticism is willfully hypocritical: Do Israel's Arab citizens suffer from disadvantage? You better believe it. Do African Americans 10 minutes from the Berkeley campus suffer from disadvantage - you better believe it, too. So should we launch a Berkeley Apartheid Week, or should we seek real ways to better our societies and make opportunity more available.

You are betraying the moderate Muslims and Jews who are working to achieve peace: Your radicalism is undermining the forces for peace in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. We are working hard to move toward a peace agreement that recognizes the legitimate rights of both Israel and the Palestinian people, and you are tearing down by falsely vilifying one side.

To the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week I would like to say:

If Israel were an apartheid state, I would not have been appointed here, nor would I have chosen to take upon myself this duty. There are many Arabs, both within Israel and in the Palestinian territories who have taken great courage to walk the path of peace. You should stand with us, rather than against us.

Ishmael Khaldi is deputy consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, you read that right. Israel's consul general for the Pacific Northwest is an Arab and a Muslim. Oh, and in his own words, Khaldi is "a proud Israeli".

So next time you hear someone call Israel an "apartheid state" or express support for Hamas or Marwan Barghouti, suggest that they take a few minutes and broaden the scope of their examination of the viewpoints on these issues.

One other point worth making. In Telling the Truth About the Palestinians, an article published at the Middle East Forum in 2004, though still relevant today, Abu Toameh (author of the first article printed above) said:
The lack of free speech in the territories should not be dismissed as an internal Palestinian problem. When Palestinian journalists are intimidated, it affects foreign journalists, who depend on Palestinians to be their guides and translators in the territories. When foreign journalists interview Palestinians, many translators often mistranslate or even reprimand Palestinian interviewees critical of the Palestinian Authority, and foreign journalists' ability to accurately gather facts is thus hampered.

Another problem with the Palestinian media is the sad fact that some Palestinian journalists see themselves as foot soldiers serving the revolution. These so-called journalists are often politically affiliated with one group or another. Under the PA, you basically cannot be a journalist if you are not a member of Fatah or the security forces. All the credible independent journalists have been fired by the three major Palestinian newspapers, and there are many professional Palestinian journalists, but they have been forced to seek work with the Arab and foreign media.

There are some in the foreign media who knowingly hire consultants or journalists who are really political activists, and rely heavily on them for their reporting. These "consultants" include former security prisoners and political activists who are hired by major media organizations, including American ones, who are often aware of these so-called journalists' problematic backgrounds. Despite the bias of their consultants, which inevitably affects their reporting, the media organizations keep quiet about the consultants' backgrounds. It is hard to say if this acquiescence by foreign media organizations is due to intimidation or to the need to maintain a good relationship with the PA, but it seriously affects the ability of journalists in the region to report the facts on the ground to the world.

Consider that next time your read news reports about events in Gaza or the West Bank.

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